Newsletters Have Maintained My Sanity In 2020
In the last Only Child post of this year, I look back at how reading/writing personal essays has subtly changed my life.
Hope everyone’s had a great holiday, whether it’s with the family or safely alone in your apartment! Quick announcement: I won’t be posting next Sunday (1/3) to fully immerse myself in my time off. So hopefully this week’s post is meaty enough to tide you over!
Writing A Newsletter: Year In Review
This newsletter has carried me through 2020. Emotionally (I get to write about my feelingz), mentally (poses weekly writing challenge), spiritually (gives me a sense of purpose during wacky times). But when I first started posting regularly around this time last year, I had no idea what I was doing or what I wanted. My priorities for the newsletter were something like this:
be smart & cool
make people think dEeP tHoUghTz
have an answer to “what do u do for fun” at parties
receive eternal accolades/praise from peers and be deemed King Writer for eons to come
^More or less.
These motivations tugged me in many directions. I ended up wanting my writing to be perfect. I poured 15+ hours of time into each post, staying up late at night like it was an English assignment due the next day, thinking the pressure would trigger greatness, like Miles Teller’s character in Whiplash. And of course, it didn’t. It just stressed me out.
By March of this year, I thought I’d figured things out, but I still wasn’t confident in my writing. Advice from other Substack writers was practical—add a logo, have a theme, keep it short, write consistently, market yourself, etc.—so I tried to follow those, hoping success (whatever that meant) would follow. So my updated list of priorities for this newsletter looked like it was pulled out of a corporate pamphlet:
make people laugh & enjoy
add more pics to newsletter (fancy fancy)
stick to fun/cute theme to that ppl will like
gain loads of new subscribers every week
These new priorities were a large shift from before, so I asked readers for feedback to give me something to work with. But even with feedback, I simply couldn’t fulfill all of my own demands. I couldn’t gain subscribers every week, spend extra time making little graphics for my posts, or commit to a single idea for this whole newsletter. It wasn’t feasible, and it wasn’t me.
It’d be cool if there were some magical bit of advice that corrected my priorities, but, as always, it just took time. Months passed, and with a new job and moving to NYC, I simply didn’t have the bandwidth to write dense essays. So I just wrote whatever I wanted, not taking Only Child too seriously. In a relieving paradox, it paid off: people preferred these shorter, sillier pieces to the dense ones I’d spend hours on. I realized I could just chill out and not be a hardcore Writer. So now, my new core priority list for this newsletter looks something like this:
learn & grow
Things clicked for me. While I’d still like a wider audience and endless praise, they motivate me less than before. Plus, these four simple, beautiful, cliché values extend beyond writing. One analogy I remind myself of often is physical exercise:
Be consistent. You can’t exercise once and get jacked unless HGH is involved. You’ve gotta do it consistently to build yourself up. It’s the same with writing (including analogous drugs). You get better by doing it regularly, even if it’s not perfect or even just sucks. The discipline will build.
Be yourself. Of course, you can’t overdo it. If you bench press 300 pounds your first day at the gym, you will die an embarrassing death. You need to be honest about where you’re at and start there. Push yourself too hard to write an earth-shattering essay and you are done. You will burn out. You’ll lose confidence, develop writer’s block, or write some bizarre drek that you’ll convince yourself is funny. Just write what’s on your mind.
Learn & Grow. There’s a simple, powerful quote that goes, “We learn by saying, not by thinking,” meaning it’s when we articulate an idea/thought/emotion that we learn rather than when we just marinate in its ingredients. Similarly, you get stronger by exerting your body and evaluating performance, not by staring at a dumbbell and pretending you’re jacked.
Enjoy. The best exercise is the kind you enjoy—otherwise, you’ll fall off the wagon. With writing, maybe you write to entertain or make people think, but that’s usually because it entertains you, or makes you think. It may not be fun in the moment—writing a scattered essay and searching for its meaning can be as challenging as core circuit training—but as you develop stamina, you learn to enjoy it. A flow state happens, and everything glows.
Maybe the best part of this analogy is that it opens up anybody to writing, whether it’s essays, stories, journaling, sketch comedy, etc. It doesn’t take a “certain kind of person” to either write or exercise—that’s ridiculous. They’re both fundamental parts of human life. Anybody with willpower and personal experience can write and, given some tools and guidance, can write well.
I’m curious what other writers (let alone newsletter writers) think about this. What mindset do you put yourself in when you write a post? What have you learned from doing a newsletter regularly? Leave me some comments pls!
And of course, if you guys like this newsletter, share it with your friends! And family! And boss’s boss! Your referrals are the main way this newsletter gets new subscribers. Thank you all for being a part of Only Child this year. This means so much to me, and I’m excited to keep going and sharing my writing with you over the next year. ♥️
I subscribe to a few newsletters to keep the wits sharp and the Inbox a-flowin’ that I wanted to share:
LowLiftAsk by Ritam and Nabeel. Every Friday they put out a hilarious essay or extended bit that makes me laugh out loud and/or think deeply. Fave posts are this detailed journal of a Cabo trip and this announcement from the HOA of Rotonda West.
Not A Writer’s Club by Celeste. She recently wrote a great piece on the difficulty of committing to a complete work of writing, including a newsletter post, or even a single sentence. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re learning to write freely.
Maybe Baby by Haley Nahman. Unlike these other newsletters, I don’t know Haley personally—I stumbled across her newsletter on Substack’s home page months ago—but her writing’s come to be one of my favorite parts of the weekend. Every week, she puts out thoughtful, complete personal essays that are so accessible they seem effortless. Here’s one of my favorites.
I recommend subscribing to all of these. Which means signing up for them by email. Is that a little pushy of me? Maybe. But that’s OK. I love reading newsletters. I like that they come directly to your email, which, if you keep your Inbox clean, is much easier, personal, and less distraction-prone than discovering posts through social media. I also like that newsletter owners have full control over their work and that they don’t need to compromise or insert advertisements to get attention. When they write, their voice is clear, and their passion shows.
Other Thing Of Note
I kind of miss sharing my old childhood stories with everyone, so here’s one about a very dedicated ice cream man.
Only Child is a weekly newsletter about finding excitement in the mundane. Tell your friends and enemies to subscribe!
—Chuckry Vengadam (@churrthing)